It’s easy to get lost in debates around form and content, or form and function, or form and freedom, or form and fill-in-the-blank—arguments for the importance of one side over the other, proclamations that the two are the same, lamentations that they can never really align. I’m hoping there is something to gain in changing the terms of the debate, in returning to an older distinction and examining how that distinction bears out in a rather marginal literary device: alliteration.
Classical rhetoric distinguishes between two types of figurative language: schemes and tropes. Schemes manipulate the arrangement of words, while tropes manipulate their meaning. Alliteration, the repetition of the same consonant across several words, is conventionally viewed as a scheme. Meanwhile a device like metaphor, which alters or expands the meaning of a word beyond its ordinary usage, is a trope. In ways that I have not been quite able to put overtly, even to myself, I’m convinced that alliteration actually presides over the blurring of these two categories. That is the conviction that I want to articulate in this three-part essay.
Ostensibly a purely sonic phenomenon, having to do with the arrangement of sounds across words, alliteration comes to seem more and more semantically rooted as we follow the history of its usage in English. A famous dictum by Alexander Pope may be invoked to trace this metamorphosis: to craft good verse, Pope insists, “’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense, / The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Mere, general euphony is not the only function of alliteration. It must also carry a specific semantic burden, as it does in Pope’s line—linking “sound” to “sense” by way of “seem,” three words that do indeed “echo” each other by way of alliteration. And as alliteration—like rhyme but much earlier than rhyme—changes from a required (if not always ornamental) prosodic device in Old and some Middle English meters to an optional one in modern English, a meaning-making function becomes even more necessary to justify its use.
In its simpler forms, alliteration can be used to point up an affinity between two or more words, as in the above example from Pope, or conversely, to emphasize a contrast, as in these lines by Edmund Spenser, where water wipes out writing: “One day I wrote her name upon the strand / But came the waves and washed it away.” Not all the words in this alliterative cluster—“one,” “wrote,” “waves,” “washed,” “away,” and, from later in the poem, “with,” “wiped out,” and “likewise”—function immediately as meaning-enhancing tropes. The alliteration of “one,” “with,” and “likewise” functions schematically and contributes more to the euphony rather than the meaning of the lines. Yet in doing so, in making the lines euphonic and memorable, alliteration gives them the feel, or more precisely, the mouth-feel, of inevitability—its function is no longer just to please, but to convince.
While all of these alliterating syllables in Spenser’s sonnet are metrically stressed, and despite prevalent definitions that restrict alliteration exclusively to metrically stressed syllables, this need not always be the case, and alliteration’s historical divorce from stress is part of the general shift from the necessary to the optional, and from scheme to trope. Even George Puttenham, who defines alliteration as “when ye make every word of the verse to begin with a like letter” (my emphasis), goes on to adduce some lines of his own, which strain this definition: “Time tried his truth, his travails, and his trust, / And time too late tried his integrity.” Here, the alliterating sound t occurs both in word-initial positions (time, tried) and non-word-initial positions (late, integrity), and both in stressed syllables (his trúth, his trúst) and unstressed syllables (traváil). A self-illustrative example from Charles Churchill takes us beyond such sonic hairsplitting: “Who often, but without success, have pray’d / For apt alliteration’s artful aid.” Perhaps alliteration, informally and in practice, has something to do with the way letters look as well as sound, though Churchill’s point may be that his alliteration here is unsuccessful because it is actually an assonance of four vowels that more look than sound the same (“a:” /æ, ə, ɑ, eɪ/).
Beyond these affiliative and contrastive functions lies alliteration’s complicated relation to wordplay. As a form of play with letters, alliteration is cousin to the pun. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage of alliteration in English is from the alliteratively titled A Gagg for the New Gospell? No: a New Gagg for an Old Goose by Richard Montagu, published in 1625: “I could have played the fool in alliteration, and hunted the letter as you have done.” Before that, what we now call alliteration went under a variety of names that make its punning nature more explicit. In his Directions for Speech and Style, the Elizabethan poet and rhetorician John Hoskins uses paronomasia to name the prosodic phenomenon we call alliteration, citing Philip Sidney’s line, “rimes, running in rattling rows,” as a self-descriptive example. Hoskins defines the device as “a pleasant touch of the same letter, syllable, or word, with a different meaning,” noting that crucial incursion of a different meaning into the same sound which reveals alliteration as, in fact, a kind of wordplay (my emphasis). When the personified river of Hart Crane’s “Repose of Rivers,” recalling its dreams, remembers the “sun-silt that rippled them / Asunder,” the alliterative encoding of sun into “asunder” alerts us to the paronomastic dream logic where “rippled” has supplanted ripped. So, too, Edgar Allan Poe—who wrote a story about hiding letters in plain sight (“The Purloined Letter”), and who, in writing poe-ms, was constantly running alliterative extensions on his own name—gives his raven the refrain of “Nevermore” not because the word contains what he claimed to be “the most sonorous vowel” (o), and “the most producible consonant” (r), but because never alliterates, palindrome-like, with raven. In Poe’s poem “Nevermore” is not just what the raven says, but also its name.
Yet Poe’s cited reasons for choosing “Nevermore” as the raven’s refrain point to the same chthonic imaginative sphere, pre-creation, where there is no distinction (not as yet) between terms like form and content or scheme and trope. Poe picked “Nevermore,” he claims, not because that was the word with the most apt meaning for what he wanted to say. Meaning doesn’t even enter the equation yet: he picked that word, instead, through a process of induction, starting with the particular, desirable sonic qualities of “r” and “o.” We may question why Poe didn’t write, say, “Quoth the raven: ‘Carnivore!’”—picking a refrain that has an identical number of r’s and o’s and an identical syllable-count and rhythm (stressed-unstressed-stressed). But we know, instinctively, that meaning is a formal determinant. What you want to say shapes the contours of how you actually say it.
But not so fast: there are still “purely” sonic factors that may account for picking “Nevermore” over something like “Carnivore.” The creative process that Poe claims to see as one of straightforward induction is, in my view, a jumbled mess of induction, deduction, and association. Who knows which came first: refrain, raven, never. Again, the association is not merely sonic: the other semantic burden of “refrain,” meaning to abstain from doing something—usually something that one may otherwise be expected to do (refrain from smoking), or was just about to do (he refrained from speaking his mind)—always has a force that goes beyond simple negation into the spheres of repression and self-denial. If the word “refrain” sounds like “raven” (r-v/f-n), it also means like “Nevermore,” in a chain of alliterative sonic-semantic association that can (and did) generate an entire poem.
In the next installment of this essay, I will look at how this chain can run not just within a poem, but across poems, linking poem to poem in ways that reveal alliteration as, at times, a species of allusion, not just a scheme for manipulating the arrangement of sounds in one poem, but a trope for manipulating meaning across multiple poems.